Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem.



July 2012

We All Lie, Cheat and Steal

Written by , Posted in Culture & Society, Government Meddling, Liberty & Limited Government

That’s the gist of a TIME piece from last month. And I’m inclined to agree.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who teaches at Duke University, is known as one of the most original designers of experiments in social science. Not surprisingly, the best-selling author’s creativity is evident throughout his latest book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. A lively tour through the impulses that cause many of us to cheat, the book offers especially keen insights into the ways in which we cut corners while still thinking of ourselves as moral people.

…“A student told me a story about a locksmith he met when he locked himself out of the house. This student was amazed at how easily the locksmith picked his lock, but the locksmith explained that locks were really there to keep honest people from stealing. His view was that 1% of people would never steal, another 1% would always try to steal, and the rest of us are honest as long as we’re not easily tempted. Locks remove temptation for most people. And that’s good, because in our research over many years, we’ve found that everybody has the capacity to be dishonest and almost everybody is at some point or another.”

Human nature is what it is. Yet some of the greatest philosophical differences between the various political ideologies are rooted in differing views of human nature. Utopian ideologies tend to start from a conception of man that is either good or improvable through social tinkering. Turn of the century movements on both sides of the Atlantic, Progressivism and Fascism, shared this central idea that human nature could be corrected through government manipulation. Classical liberalism, based on Lockean theorizing (which in turn drew from the Hobbesian conception of human nature as violent and competitive) rejected this view. While Locke saw the state as necessary to protect fundamental rights, it is also posed a threat of its own. It would be, after all, run by the same flawed individuals.

Which brings me to this passage from the article:

“People are able to cheat more when they cheat for other people. In some experiments, people cheated the most when they didn’t benefit at all. This makes sense if our ability to be dishonest is increased by the ability to rationalize our behavior. If you’re cheating for the benefit of another entity, your ability to rationalize is enhanced. So yes, it’s easier for an accountant to see fudging on clients’ tax returns as something other than dishonesty. And it’s a concern within companies, since people’s altruistic tendencies allow them to cheat more when it benefits team members.”

With this understanding, is it any surprise that government’s are full of liars and cheats?

This reminded me of a quote from James Madison in Federalist #51:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

It seems as if the left often stops after the first sentence. Men are bad, so we need government. But what about our government of men? The “auxiliary precautions” of which Madison speaks are exactly the restraints on political power which the left has worked so consistently to erode. In expanding the Commerce Clause into meaninglessness, and turning on its head the Constitutional idea of enumerated powers, today’s government has plenty of control of the governed, but little if anything left in place to oblige it to control itself.